New Pokémon Snap: The Dark Souls of Casual Gaming (Either that or I just suck at it)

I was a kid when the N64 came out. That puts my parents in their early twenties when the home videogame revolution occurred. Unfortunately, they were the only people who didn’t buy into it, which would cause me to miss those classic console generations and become a Gamecube kid. And while that can definitely be considered a badge of honor, it does pain me to say that I did miss a lot of great N64 games… such as Pokémon Snap. I watched several playthroughs of it on YouTube, and it looked super fun (albeit a bit on the short side). I wouldn’t get to experience that BS grading system that had nothing to do with actual rules of composition or being told that “I was close” until New Pokémon Snap came out on Nintendo Switch. I paid good money for this thing. Let’s hope it’s at least more than three hours long.

In New Pokémon Snap, you are transferred to the pun-tastic facility known as the Laboratory of Ecology and Nature Sciences (i.e. L.E.N.S.) to study Pokémon. Under the guide of Professor Mirror (not named after a tree for once), you take pictures of the critters for science. Oh, and some of them are shiny I guess.

People hated Gen 8 for how it looked (among other things), but New Pokémon Snap ends up being a big step above… Okay, that isn’t saying much. The characters look kind of plastic, but the game still has that pleasant, cartoony feel of the Pokémon world in general. The night time segments are where it excels in terms of visuals; gotta love stylized particle effects!

This is both a photography game, and a Pokémon game that isn’t Gen 5, so it goes without saying that there really isn’t a plot. The whole thing is following the old journal of some guy named Vince to discover the Illumina phenomenon. This glow makes Pokémon shiny, but sadly, it’s not the shiny that series veterans think of. In any case, that’s literally the whole story.

The characters are also as lacking as you can expect. This game is meant to be very serene and cut off from the criminal organizations, questionable ethics, min-maxxing, and awful law enforcement of the main games, so no one can be over-the-top. And as a result, they are as flat as anyone who isn’t Gladion, and also lack the great character design that Pokémon people tend to have. The only one who stands out is Todd, and that’s only under the assumption that he’s the original game’s protagonist. 

In terms of gameplay, New Pokémon Snap will feel very familiar to experienced players of the original. You move along on an automated path and take photos. You also have the help of returning tools such as the apples, and a Poké Flute equivalent that sounds way more annoying this time around.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a long-overdue sequel without some (i.e. a lot of) new features. First off, you can scan stuff now. This helps you find things as well as elicit reactions from nearby Pokémon. Pester Balls are replaced with Illumina Orbs. This can put Pokémon into an Illumina state, allowing for new behaviors. Also, hitting special flowers will trigger a widespread Illumina effect that often results in something ideal for your endeavors. The catch is that each region has its own variant, and you’ll have to earn them as you progress.

There’s also the research level. Courses, most of which are divided into day and night variants, have their own XP bars. Fill it up by discovering varied Pokémon behavior (and getting good scores), and upon levelling it up, the Pokémon on that course will change, allowing for even more variety. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year,” said Randy Quaid. Movie references aside, this mechanic really helps bring areas to life in a way that wasn’t possible in the original. 

The big thing that gives New Pokémon Snap its replay value is the way completing the Photodex works. Each photo of a Pokémon has a ranking system that ranges from bronze to platinum. As expected of a game where a machine judges art… yeah, good luck. However, there’s more than just getting a good photo of a Pokémon. As I said earlier with research level, Pokémon exhibit different behaviors. In fact, each Pokémon has FOUR states that it can be photographed in, each of which has its own ranking system. The completionist run requires every photograph of every Pokémon in every state with a platinum rating. Like I said, good luck.

Since machines aren’t sentient enough to have an eye for art, photo evaluation is the same “get the Pokémon in the center of the frame” BS as it always was. If you’re used to the ever-picky Professor Oak, then it’ll feel like second nature. However, Mirror doesn’t straight-up shit on you like Oak does. Whether or not that’s a disappointment is your prerogative. In any case, it’s also about as buggy as it was before; for every shot that should be awful, you get platinum, and a bronze for every shot that appears to more-than-adequately meet the game’s parameters (okay, to be honest, it’s not like that ALL the time but it’s noticeable).

When it comes to finding the four poses,  they’re mostly fun to figure out. These states can be triggered through your various tools, or by just having good reflexes. The problem with this system is the fact that you can only submit one photo of a Pokémon at a time. This sucks, since it’s more than likely you’ll have photos of Pokémon in more than one pose in a single run. This issue is most evident when in the special Illumina Pokémon stages. These are like Rainbow Cloud from the original; just you and a glowing Pokémon that you gotta go to town on. Although more Pokémon show up when replaying these stages, the bulk of their time is taken by the Illumina Pokémon. As such, it’s more than possible to get two, three, or possibly all four poses in a single run (and they’re generally not easy shots to get either). But because you can only do one at a time at the end… yeah. I can just imagine Professor Mirror saying, “Wow, you captured this one Pokémon in a wide variety of behaviors all at once!” as he heartlessly shreds all but one of those photos you poured your blood, sweat, and tears into. And to be logic police for a second, this system is not at all efficient to doing ecology research. 

At the very least, you won’t be thrown in like cold turkey when it comes to figuring out the different poses of Pokémon; characters often provide photo requests that clue you in on what to do. However, a lot of these requests SUCK, and can make the game a hellscape if you’re going for completion. They range from pretty intuitive to Famicom-levels of obtuse, and at the time of posting this, I sure as hell didn’t get them all! And even if you know what to do, execution ends up being the hard part. While you can retry a stage anytime, there are actually slight variations within a given stage that are completely random, even if you didn’t increase the Research Level (looking at you, Elsewhere Forest). As a result, many of your retries can end up being just for the opportunity to take that photo (on top of having to set everything up for said photo). Oh, and if you end up preemptively taking a photo for a request before it comes up, then you’ll have to take it again, and waste the chance to submit a new pose from that run. And if you DO complete the request, you gotta manually turn it in!

One issue I will acknowledge that puts this game beneath the original is how progression is done. With exactly one exception at the butt end of the game, it’s all tied to raising the research level, as opposed to being observant and solving a puzzle in a given stage with intuition and timing. You don’t have to do any of the BS to raise it up to adequate levels, but it nonetheless doesn’t feel as accomplishing.

Beyond that, this game is just plain brutal at times. While it’s arguable whether or not any challenge in New Pokémon Snap is as hard as getting the 10k Mew shot in the original, a lot of this stuff really piles up, and the cumulative difficulty surpasses that of the Mew fight. Oftentimes, you’ll have to make ridiculously precise throws, sometimes at moving targets from within your also-moving vehicle, in very short windows of time. There are also a number of occasions where you have to kite Pokémon with apples for obnoxiously long periods of time. The problem with this last example is that Pokémon aren’t as responsive to apples as before, making it a real pain to maintain their attention. And if you mess up once, they go back to their starting point.

Let’s stop talking about the problems with the game and discuss some nice positives. One big help is that it gives you a visual indication of what is considered the subject of your next shot. Plus, you can take pictures while not zoomed in, as well as throw items while zoomed in. Most notably, photos are put into individual folders during evaluation, making it a lot less messy when choosing what to show to Mirror.

And need I mention the phenomenal photo customization? Every photo registered in the Photodex—as well as ones saved in your album—can be edited in some way. You can give them funny captions that are a lot better than the in-game ones, for starters. There is also the ability to re-snap a photo taken with the ability to modify angle and color balance settings (although this is only available at the end of a given run). The fun part is plopping stickers and effects onto your photos to make them hilarious. You get more and more stickers as you accomplish stuff, and it’s actually worth trying to knock out requests since they have a lot of the better stickers.

Before getting to the final evaluation, I should point out that New Pokémon Snap does have a bit of a post-game. You unlock the challenge score system from the original’s post-game (assuming you even care about it), as well as the Burst Mode setting for your camera that allows you to capture photos at rapid speed. Most notably, you unlock a beautiful new stage… that would’ve been spoiled to you if you happened to look at the Nintendo eShop pics for this game. It also spawns some Legendary Pokémon in earlier stages, if you want even more headaches. 

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Final Verdict: 8.95/10

It has more depth, better replay value, a great photo customization system, and a wider variety of Pokémon. Yet… for some completely arbitrary reason, it completely lacks the heart, personality, charm, and [insert other esoteric thing here] that the N64 Pokémon Snap had. …Look, I’m kidding, okay?! I think New Pokémon Snap was well worth the wait, and has more than enough positive qualities to outclass its predecessor. Just… for the love of Arceus… attempt to 100% it at your own risk!